Features

Victories, if not advances

National | President Bush came to office with a press-shaped reputation as a bumbler, but his first six months have put his predecessor's early record to shame

Issue: "Heresy trials," Aug. 18, 2001

in Washington-As George W. Bush headed out the White House doors for his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the change of scenery led to a chorus of grousing from beat reporters. After summering with the Clintons on Martha's Vineyard, they wondered why this president would choose to imprison them for weeks in what they view as a barren, wind-swept, heatstroke-inducing spot on the Texas prairie. The ranch could also serve as a metaphor for George W. Bush's most devoted critics, who with little understanding of Texas (see "Texas Books," page 15) think wide-open spaces go with empty brains. But people in Washington who've seen the president in action for six months now have learned that Mr. Bush is nobody's dummy, and his ninth-inning legislative successes in the House of Representatives before the August recess left his critics cursing and vowing to fight again in the fall. This, after all, was supposed to be a president whose narrow election would force him to trim sails and make deals and meet Democrats in the capital's chummy, more-government "middle." Confounded by his success in passing a tax cut much larger than they wanted, most Democrats began grousing that his conservative stands somehow were surprises instead of campaign promises. Then the crumbling of the 50-50 Senate with the defection of Sen. Jim Jeffords started a new cycle of conventional wisdom: Mr. Bush would now have to sign over his agenda to the most liberal elements of his party if he wanted any more achievements for his list of talking points. It has worked that way in a couple of areas, education and the faith-based initiative, but on other policy matters TeamBush was more creative, finding new allies in strange places. Thanks to lobbying and even radio commercials from the Teamsters union, the House passed an energy bill, including a contentious provision to explore for oil in a tiny patch of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). A series of meetings with Rep. Charles Norwood, an otherwise conservative politician with a passion for a so-called "patients' bill of rights," led to a less lawyer-pleasing HMO-regulation bill that passed the House. In addition to a sunnier approval rating, the first six months of the supposedly bumbling Mr. Bush look much different than the beginning of his supposedly brainier predecessor: Energy: From the early days of his presidency, prognosticators said George W. Bush wouldn't get ANWR exploration passed by the House. But backed by a coalition of energy providers and labor unions, the energy bill passed by a strong 240-189 margin. Among its provisions, the bill would offer $33.5 billion in tax cuts and incentives for energy production, mandate a small increase in fuel efficiency for sport-utility vehicles and light trucks, as well as OK the drilling in Alaska. Rep. Don Young of Alaska scolded opponents, noting how popular drilling is with the Alaskans, while House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) sputtered, "This is a cathedral of nature-a national heritage." The main factor with the 36 Democrats who crossed the aisle to vote with Mr. Bush was the Teamsters' campaign. A radio commercial that aired in Pennsylvania and West Virginia complained: "Why are some folks who call themselves environmentalists so intolerant and excessive? Don't they know that if we want to stabilize prices we have to carefully find and develop new energy sources?" The union's energy specialists see the potential for 735,000 new jobs in the petroleum industry. Conservatives were impressed with the victory, and the new coalition. "I never thought this would pass the House," said Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "Now the president should take this approach beyond ANWR to fuel-efficiency standards and global warming." The Teamsters, as well as electrical workers, auto workers, coal miners, and other unions have opposed the environmental left when their proposals threaten the loss of jobs. Eight years ago, Mr. Clinton struggled with his own much more comfortable Democratic majorities in the House and Senate when he proposed an energy tax, and ended up signing only a small 4-cent increase in the gasoline tax, which didn't impress green hardliners. Health care: Breaking away from the conventional notion that he's uninterested and uninvolved in policy matters, Mr. Bush dealt directly with Congressman Norwood and won him over by suggesting he could accept almost all the provisions of his bill except the high, $5 million punitive damage cap, which he would veto. The two men agreed to allow consumers to sue health plans in state courts, but would restrict them to a $1.5 million cap on noneconomic damages and a separate $1.5 million cap for punitive damages, but only if the health plan refused an order from an outside review board. Mr. Norwood wept in the House well as he pleaded for a victorious vote, and the compromise passed, 218-213. "It was a masterful stroke of politics, but it was a huge policy defeat," argued Robert Moffit, director of domestic programs at the Heritage Foundation. Lawsuits are marginal to the broader issue, he said. The bill "creates a vast expansion of federal regulatory control over the private health insurance market. They've created unfunded mandates on insurers, which will result in higher premiums. Insurers will look more and more like public utilities." Mr. Moffit says the best story inside this story is an amendment that would extend these patient "protections" and lawsuit provisions to Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal health plans. The amendment echoed the first days of the Gingrich-led House, when the GOP insisted that any laws passed by the federal government ought to apply to the government as well as the rest of the country. Federal employee unions strongly oppose the amendment. While debate rages on about the merits, in terms of paper achievements, the administration's health policy checklist beats the early Clinton presidency. President Clinton didn't release an actual summary of his massive health plan until late September of 1993, and the proposal started taking on water quickly after the 1,300-page blueprint hit the capital in January of 1994. Taxes: The mailing of tax rebates also accents the mid-year point of Mr. Bush's early presidency. President Clinton passed his record tax increase by a single vote, without any Republican support, in August. By contrast, Mr. Bush's tax cut, largely the same size as he proposed on the campaign trail, passed in May, was signed in June, and starting hitting mail boxes in July. John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College and author of The Art of Political Warfare, suggested Mr. Bush "faced the most adverse circumstances of the past 100 years in losing the popular vote. But he quickly achieved his top legislative priority, tax cuts. Unlike most victories, this has results people can now hold in their hands." For now, Mr. Bush's victories have prevented a month-long working vacation filled with dire predictions of Mr. Bush's sagging popularity or effectiveness. Instead, Bush critics can only promise it will be a difficult fall taking those House victories into Ted Kennedy territory. "I hope he has a long, enjoyable vacation," Democratic Party chief Terry McAuliffe joked on Fox News Sunday. "He's going to need it when he gets back." Senate Democrats pledge to block ANWR exploration, pump up the patient "protections," and further weaken the faith-based initiative. After months of delay, the House and Senate may even finally create a conference committee on the education bill. But White House officials know there is more to politics than merely "getting things done." There's the question of whether the finalized bills that hit the president's desk in any way resemble his campaign promises, and if he signs them, how those new laws will make waves as they're implemented across the country. Religious conservatives are especially concerned about the potential funhouse-mirror shape of the upcoming education and faith-based bills. When the education bill heads to conference, the shedding of reformist provisions and the addition of a lot more subsidies will look more like that chummy, more-government "middle" than the president's passionate campaign focus on bringing tough accountability measures to failing schools. And while the House has already gutted the faith-based initiative by mandating discrimination against Christ-affirming charities, Sen. Joe Lieberman is preparing to add provisions that would force grant applicants to hire homosexuals and other theological opponents. But after the latest White House surprises, it's dangerous to make any gloomy predictions before the story ends. If the early Bush and Clinton presidencies were reduced to the usual glib caricatures-call it the Frat-Boy Prankster vs. the Rhodes-Scholar Genius-why is the frat boy beating the genius at his own game?

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